Why a Stronger Turkish Air Force is Vital to U.S. and Israeli Security Interests: White House Fast Tracking F-16 Sales Amid Mideast Tensions

Amid rising tensions across the Middle East the United States has sought to support accelerated modernisation of the armed forces of one of its two leading strategic partners in the region, namely NATO member Turkey, with President Joe Biden on January 23 sending letters to Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees urging them to quickly approve an export of F-16 fighters to the country worth $20 billion. Letters were also sent to four senior members of Congress. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel subsequently informed a news briefing regarding the sale: “President Biden, Secretary Blinken have been very clear of our support for modernising Turkey’s F-16 fleet, which we view as a key investment in NATO interoperability.” Turkey’s fighter fleet is currently considered obsolete even by regional standards, and lacks either modern air to air missiles or aircraft with electronically scanned array radars. The fighters’ capabilities thus compare very poorly to the F-35s fielded by Israel, the Su-35s soon to be acquired by Iran and already deployed to the region by Russia, and even the MiG-29SMTs supplied to Syria by Russia from 2020, all of which deploy superior missiles and use phased array radars. 

Turkey alongside the United States has the largest military presence in the Middle East among NATO members, and continues to play a central role in supporting a range of Islamist militant groups such as the formerly Al Qaeda linked Al Nusra Front and the Turkestan Islamic Party. These in turn have for over a decade focused their attacks on Syria, Russian and Iranian targets, with Turkestan Islamic Party positions near the Turkish border having been targeted accordingly in an Iranian ballistic missile strike on January 15. The ongoing Turkish challenge to Syria’s security and to those of other Iranian-aligned actors both directly and through jihadist affiliates has been a key factor preventing Damascus, Hezbollah and other parties from focusing their military attentions towards Israel and the United States since the escalation of hostilities between Israeli and Palestinian forces on October 7. With the U.S. Military stretched increasingly thinly between East Asia, the Arctic and Eastern Europe, where tensions have continued to rise, bolstering the other leading NATO military in the region with new fighter aircraft provides a means for the American to reduce pressure on its own forces. As F-16s has seen relatively few sales in recent years, a $20 billion Turkish investment in the program will also provide a welcome boost to the American defence sector, dwarfing the $8.1 billion Taiwanese purchase of 66 fighters made in 2019. 

The Turkish Air Force is set to acquire 60 F-16 Block 70/72 fighters and purchase 80 modernisation kits to bring its existing fighters up to the F-16V standard with similar avionics and weaponry. The country is currently the largest operator of the F-16 other than the United States with approximately 250 of the aircraft in service. The F-16 notably first flew 50 years ago in January 1974 and began to enter service in 1978, with the U.S. Air Force having ceased acquisitions 19 years ago in 2005 to focus resources on acquisitions of the new F-35A fighter. Although the F-16 is widely being retired, the new F-16 Block 70/72 variant notably boasts similarly advanced avionics and weaponry to the F-35 although hindered by the smaller size of its radar, its much shorter range and it lack of stealth capabilities. The F-16 faces similar disadvantages when compared to the F-15 and Su-35 fielded by Saudi Arabia and Iran which have even longer ranges and carry larger radars than the F-35. 

The Turkish fighter fleet is expected to remain comfortably outmatched by those of other regional powers such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with training having become a major issue due to political interventions in the armed forces including mass arrests of air force officers from 2016 following an attempted coup in the country. That year only a single fighter squadron, an F-4 unit based in the Islamist stronghold of Konya, agreed to provide support to the embattled government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although Turkey has invested heavily in drone capabilities, the effectiveness of these assets has proven highly limited in both Syria and Ukraine with aircraft proving highly vulnerable even against lower end air defence systems. The Turkish Air Force’s standing in the region is likely to be further eroded by the modernisation of the Iranian Air Force, which is reported to be considering acquisitions of 64 Su-35 fighters from Russia and already fields one of the region’s two leading ground based air defence networks. As part of NATO the Turkish Air Force has long retained the closest cooperation with the Israeli Air Force among regional states, with the two having coordinated strikes on Syria and while their governments armed and financed many of the same insurgent groups there. Israel also previously modernised Turkish F-4 fighters and provided key life extension upgrades to allow them to remain in service until new F-16s begin to arrive.